How Glacial Lakes in India Offer Lessons on Adaptation

Posted by on Nov 10, 2016

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Situated on a high plateau in northwest India, the Ladakh region is part of the contested Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. While local communities share similar linguistic, cultural, and religious beliefs with Tibet, Pakistan and India continue to disagree on territorial claims in the region. Located in the Himalaya Mountains, the Ladakh region is home to some of the world’s largest glaciers outside of polar regions with 266 glacial lakes, according to Mountain Research and Development. Given the recent warming temperature trends, the glacial retreat in the region places Ladakh’s small mountain communities at risk for destructive events known as glacial lake outburst floods or GLOFs. A GLOF occurs when the terminal moraine dam located at the maximum edge of a glacier collapses, releasing large volumes of water.

In an attempt to minimize these threats to small mountain communities, the International Research Institute of Disaster Science, the Department of Environmental Science at Niigata University, and the Ladakh Ecological Development Group offered a one-day workshop to educate populations on their local risks due to the increased numbers of glacial lakes in the region. Three months after the workshop, facilitators returned to the area to survey local villagers to measure the retention and overall success of this adaptive approach. 

(Source: Rajesh/Creative Commons)

Kargil District, Ladakh (Source: Rajesh/Creative Commons)

In the article, scientists report that knowledge of risks was limited: “Most villagers knew of some but not all of the glacier lakes in the valley – primarily those closest to the regular routes used in their daily lives, such as near pasturelands in the headwater areas and along trade routes to the adjacent valleys.” The majority of villagers obtained their knowledge from communications with people who had come across the glacial lakes accidentally, according to the researchers.

By presenting and encouraging action that complemented daily lives, the scientists believed they were able to better prepare communities for climate risks increases. The scientists were able to provide local villagers with information on how to more accurately assess glacier lakes and the potential risk for a GLOF by developing an understanding of local routes. These tools were promoted to help villagers contribute to a stronger, more resilient local mountain community.

A warming planet has caused glacial melt to increase in regions like northwest India, leading to the formation of more glacial lakes since the 1970s, according to NASA. With the increased number of glacial lakes located in the Ladakh region, the risk for glacial outburst flood rises, as stated by Worni et al. Given the high altitude origins of these glacial lakes, a sudden release of water can have similar catastrophic impacts as a massive avalanche. The sudden force is capable of leveling anything in its path, including villages.

“[GLOFs] result in serious death tolls and destruction of valuable natural resources, such as forests, farms, and costly mountain infrastructures,” according to the India Environmental Portal. “The Hindu Kush-Himalayan region has suffered several GLOF events originating from numerous glacial lakes, some of which have trans-boundary impacts.” Educating and preparing small mountain communities becomes increasingly critical because forecasting abilities for these events are limited.

(Source: Creative Commons)

Himalayan Mountains from air (Source: Karunakar Rayker/Creative Commons)

The forecasting challenges surrounding GLOFs makes communicating risk to local communities difficult. In an attempt to reach and effectively communicate risks to remote mountain villages in the Ladakh region, the International Research Institute of Disaster Science, the Department of Environmental Science, Niigata University, and the Ladakh Ecological Development Group developed a concept for the one day workshop. According to the report, of the 120 people participating, three villages were represented, all possessing different leveled risks. Villagers were picked at random and varied in age from school children to elderly members in the community. Once the workshop began, facilitators encouraged the conversation and integration of both villager observations and scientific fact provided by scientists working for the Ladakh Ecological Development Group.

The workshop began with villagers sharing their knowledge and perceptions on changes in the region. By providing material in both English and the local language, Ladakhi, the workshop tried to make the scientific material more accessible to villagers, regardless of their preferred language. Additionally, many of the challenging scientific processes were presented visually and had accompanying text in both languages. Finally, this information was merged and displayed in terms of future countermeasures needed to reduce flood risks. Success was measured after the workshop had completed.

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Drang Drung Glacier (Source: Poonam Agarwal/Creative Commons)

Three months after the workshop, a survey suggested that the local communities had benefited from the experience: “Of the 60 respondents, 34 stated that they had acquired new information from the workshop and booklet. Among them, 18 had not participated in the workshop,” according to the report. While these numbers show an opportunity to improve understanding and retention, the feedback also demonstrates that the workshop was successful in providing villagers who attended with accurate, accessible information. It generated important discussion about confronting risks associated with a changing glacial landscape, as demonstrated by half of the people surveyed not having attended the conference.

Integrating climate science and culture is the future to building resilient communities. As was discovered in the Ladakh region, religion helped shape the local communities view of natural environmental processes. “Some Domhar villagers came to think of these lakes as sacred places; this belief is still alive among some villagers, especially the older people,” according to the researchers. “Participants of one of the four discussion groups mentioned a belief that sacred horses and sheep lived at lakes in the headwater areas of the Gongpa-Rangchong Valley, and that floods or other disasters would occur if these animals were offended…. Furthermore, the participants of the same discussion group also noted that they could see Tibetan temples and landscapes reflected on the surface of the lake.”

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Pangong Tso Lake (Source: Praveen/Creative Commons)

Respecting and acknowledging local belief systems is imperative and proved to be useful in the case of educating local mountain communities in the Ladakh region. Reflections appearing in the lakes is deeply-rooted in the religious cultures of the Ladakh region, which is primarily Tibetan Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, according to the Yale Journal. By creating a workshop that encouraged conversation about the climate changes in the region, the scientists were able to direct the retention of information by providing a learning environment that validated all views. Additionally, by listening and honoring local culture, scientists were able to present scientifically accurate information in a way that would incorporate everyday culture.

Educating communities is the foundation of creating and implementing a successful adaptation plan, as seen with the work done in northwest India. Educating and adapting ensures resilience to risks associated not only with glacial outburst flood risks, but also other risks associated with changing climates. The methods highlighted by this report of educating through culturally-aware discussions showed promising results worth building upon. As global communities continue to face challenges associated with changing climates, it’s worth exploring methods that have successfully started to implement change.

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